Now the letters and cards arrive with foreign postmarks. The collect telephone calls are begun by operators with accented voices. And even when the accent is of New England, voices come on the line with the same message: Send Money.

Sam and I agree, like other parents in the Washington area, my nest has become a launching pad, particularly on this July 4. My children land and take off at all hours of the day and night. Melissa, the middle daughter, passes my bedroom in a blur; a week later she is levitating above the olive trees in Italy. Stephanie, the oldest, is flying on four wheels up and down the East Coast. Not to be outdone, Leah, the youngest, suddenly appears in the living room as if by Star Trek transporter after shuttling friends around town for days.

Caught in the whirlwind of jet-propelled offspring, I find myself wondering: Where is my family? There are so many dates and destinations whizzing around in my head that the sidewalk in front of the house seems like a runway and I feel like a traffic controller at National Airport.

But the situation isn't limited to me. Other "achieving" parents (which is to say, parents struggling and juggling at a "higher" level), offer similar reports. "My 16-year-old is in the Caribbean with Operation Crossroads Africa," one D.C. parent mentions at a party. Another begins to regale the group with tales of her son's trek to South America. The teen-age sons and daughters of countless other friends have traveled to Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and even the Far East, with their school classes, youth orchestras, sports groups and churches. The accounts flow so freely, and so naturally, it hardly seems like boasting. My, how times have changed.

I can still remember the day my middle daughter made her pitch about traveling overseas. She felt "deprived." (Hah!) Paying for a trip to Europe, her father and I felt, was above and beyond the call of duty. Her tuition for the following year was as far as we could afford to go. So I told her she was welcome to go if she paid her fare.

She came through. Undergoing a two-year reign of frugality, she saved every penny she could from work, Christmas and birthday gifts. Eventually she went to Italy, alone, and decided to enroll in a four-week Italian course at a school that caters to foreigners. As the summer has progressed, she has gained an eclectic coterie of friends from many nations. She is also taking a cooking class. She's discovered something her mother has known for a long time -- eating at home is cheaper than eating in restaurants.

Meanwhile, her older sister is keeping the road hot between Washington and Rhode Island, dropping into New Jersey, Block Island or Philadelphia on the way.

Once I had only worried about them crashing into the bottom banister as they slid down the stairs; now I'm worrying about one smacking into some 18-wheeler on the New Jersey Turnpike and another crashing into an olive tree as she admires the Italian landscape.

As a parent, I like to encourage travel in my children. It helps them understand this global village and gives them the courage to take risks. But somewhere, deep inside I wonder if they are really paying me back for what I did to my own mother.

I can still remember the silence on the other end of the telephone when I told her I was going to Africa for the summer as soon as the ink on my college diploma was dry. A Southern born and bred woman, she had not at that time even traveled to California. But she supported my first foreign venture and hugged me at the airport. Now I understand that the tremor in her hug was more than simply shared excitement. It was the wonderment and concern of how my wings would take to air.

But I knew I was doing something extraordinary. These youngsters, with their highly refined sense of entitlement, seem to be taking it all for granted -- a fact that both pleases and discomfits me. I am glad that we can almost afford to help them do the things that were beyond our dreams (even if we may be a long time recovering financially).

Soon, the middle kid will be heading home and the oldest will be stopping home to retank and check her engine. I plan to stay out of the way. Aside from a drunk mumbling in an alley, there's nothing more unsightly than a parent run down on a runway.